Recap vs. Pittsburgh Passion – June 25, 2016

D.C. Divas Triumph In Battle of the Champs, Down Pittsburgh Passion, 41-29
DC 41, Pittsburgh 29
By Neal Rozendaal

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Landover, MD – Just in case there was ever any confusion, the D.C. Divas made a definitive statement Saturday night: the champs are here.

Ashley Whisonant scored three touchdowns – two receiving and one on a long punt return – and picked off two passes on defense, and the defending WFA champion D.C. Divas handed the two-time defending IWFL champion Pittsburgh Passion their first playoff defeat in three years with a 41-29 victory. The Divas (8-1) advance to host their archrivals, the Boston Renegades, at home on July 9 in the WFA’s Eastern Conference championship game.

The underdog Passion (7-3) reached into their bag of tricks immediately, recovering an onside kick to start the game. They proceeded to drive deep into Divas’ territory and faced a fourth and two from the D.C. 10-yard line. The Passion decided to go for it, but Divas linebacker C’Vette Henson dropped Pittsburgh running back Tara Catone for a three-yard loss to give the ball to the Divas’ offense for the first time.

The Divas went three and out on their first possession, and a very short punt set Pittsburgh up with great field position again, this time at the Divas’ 27-yard line. But Amanda Congialdi helped the Divas stave off the threat by intercepting Pittsburgh quarterback Lisa Horton’s pass at the 17-yard line.

The Divas then mounted their first successful offensive drive. A 16-yard catch by wide receiver Kentrina Wilson on third and long moved the chains, and Okiima Pickett – who started the game at running back and led the team with 86 yards on 17 carries – bolted into Pittsburgh territory with a powerful 24-yard run. But the drive stalled out shortly after the Divas crossed midfield. Faced with a fourth and 14, the Divas tried to catch the Passion off guard by shifting from punt formation and into an offensive set just before the snap. But a designed run gained only five yards, and the Divas turned the ball back over to Pittsburgh on downs.

Once again, the D.C. defense stepped up to turn back the Passion offense. The Passion elected to go for it on fourth and four from the D.C. 46-yard line, but the Divas’ Quiana Ford swatted down Horton’s pass attempt to turn the Passion over for the third straight time. As the D.C. offense went back to work, time expired on a scoreless first quarter.

The Divas would seize the advantage in the second period. Ashley Whisonant split two defenders to come down with a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Allyson Hamlin, and Stephanie Nealis booted her first of five successful extra points to put the Divas ahead, 7-0.

The Pittsburgh offense continued to struggle, going three and out on their next possession. The Divas flexed their offensive muscles with a 12-play, 77-yard drive to the end zone midway through the second quarter. Hamlin finished the drive herself with a three-yard quarterback draw into the end zone, and the Divas extended their lead to 14-0.

Now trailing by two scores, the Passion offense finally snapped to life. Long passes from Horton to wide receivers Rachel Wojdowski (38 yards) and Angela Baker (18 yards) gave the Passion first and goal on the D.C. four-yard line late in the first half. But the Divas’ defense responded with a terrific goal line stand.

On second and goal at the one-yard line, 18-year veteran linebacker Trigger McNair and 15-year defensive lineman Jimmien Strong teamed up to stuff Pittsburgh fullback Janice Masters for a two-yard loss. A two-yard run on third down put the ball back down on the Divas’ one-yard line on fourth and goal.

Horton tried to run up the middle for the touchdown, but defensive lineman Emily Grossman and linebacker Tia Watkins held their ground, stopping the quarterback for no gain and keeping Pittsburgh off the scoreboard. The Divas’ offense then ran out most of the remaining time from the half, and the Divas went to intermission holding a 14-0 halftime advantage.

The D.C. Divas would take command of the game in the third quarter, although it did not look that way as the second half began. Wojdowski caught a 46-yard pass from Horton to give the Passion first and goal, and on fourth down, Horton tossed a two-yard pass to Baker for Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the game. The extra point kick cut the Divas’ lead to 14-7 three minutes into the second half.

The Divas then went three and out and punted on their next possession, and for the first time since early in the second quarter, the Passion had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. But Horton threw her second interception of the game when Whisonant picked off a long pass intended for Wojdowski and returned it 22 yards into Pittsburgh territory.

Whisonant would make her presence felt on both sides of the ball, taking the handoff on a reverse and weaving her way for 27 yards before stepping out of bounds at the two-yard line. Divas running back Kenyetta Grigsby would take it from there by rushing the final two yards for a score, her 100th rushing touchdown since joining the Divas in 2010. Grigsby’s touchdown restored the Divas’ two-score lead at 21-7 with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter; she would finish the game with 40 yards on five carries with one touchdown.

The D.C. defense continued to rise to the occasion and made Pittsburgh pay for a rare gamble. The Passion fielded the ensuing kickoff at their own 39-yard line, but they gained just five yards in three plays. Faced with fourth and five on their own side of the field, they attempted to go for the first down, but Congialdi tipped the pass away for the Divas to give the offense great field position.

Kentrina Wilson put the Divas even further in front with a spectacular 22-yard touchdown catch. On a pass that seemed nearly out of reach, Wilson extended her arms and caught the top half of the falling football for a score. Wilson led the team with 53 receiving yards on three receptions, and her lone touchdown gave the Divas a 28-7 lead over Pittsburgh with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.

The Divas took a virtually insurmountable lead as the third quarter came to an end. The defense forced the Passion offense into a fourth and long, which brought up a Pittsburgh punt. Whisonant caught the punt and sprinted down the sidelines for an electrifying 72-yard touchdown return as time expired in the third quarter. Nealis’ extra point attempt was blocked, but the Divas led, 34-7, after three quarters of play.

Pittsburgh made one last gasp as they opened the fourth quarter, driving into the D.C. red zone. Horton kept the Pittsburgh drive alive with a juking 14-yard run on third and ten, but she was picked off at the goal line three plays later by Whisonant to end the threat. Whisonant played a spectacular game in all phases, registering two rushes for 53 yards, three catches for 25 yards and a touchdown, a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, and two interceptions of Lisa Horton on defense.

Horton would then leave the game, replaced at quarterback by Janice Masters. Masters was extremely productive in her new role. It took Pittsburgh just three plays on their next offensive possession to reach the end zone on a seven-yard run by Passion running back Sonya Osselborn. Osselborn’s touchdown pulled Pittsburgh within 34-14 midway through the fourth quarter.

But C’Vette Henson not only recovered the Passion’s onside kick but returned it 15 yards to their 33-yard line. The Divas’ offense then put the game on ice. Hamlin tossed her third touchdown of the game, this time a one-yard flip to tight end Melissa Washington on fourth down. That put the Divas in front, 41-14, with just 4:14 remaining in the game. Hamlin ended the contest with 13 completions on 22 attempts for 99 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another touchdown on the ground.

With the game decided, the Passion continued to fight and made the final score look more favorable with two late scores. Qualin Pitts rushed for a four-yard touchdown with 1:18 left in the game to cut the D.C. lead to 41-21. Pittsburgh then recovered an onside kick, drove down the field, and scored on a six-yard pass from Masters to Wojdowski with ten seconds to play. The Passion, trailing by 14 points with ten seconds on the clock, proceeded to fake the extra point kick and throw for a two-point conversion to make the final margin 41-29.

Despite the two late scores, the D.C. defense played a terrific game shutting down a potent Pittsburgh offense. Tia Watkins led the team with ten tackles, followed by Trigger McNair with seven. Eris Woodard added 6.5 tackles, C’Vette Henson chipped in with six, and Cherre Marshall and Kucheria Eades contributed five tackles each.

This was the first meeting between the Divas and Passion since 2013, and it was billed as a battle of the champs. The Pittsburgh Passion left the WFA in 2014 and joined the smaller Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) for two seasons before returning to the WFA this year. Pittsburgh dominated the IWFL during their two-year stint in that league, winning back-to-back “world championships” while the Divas defeated considerably stronger competition on their way to the 2015 WFA national title.

Upon their return to the WFA, Pittsburgh was awarded the right to host the 2016 WFA championship in four weeks, an honor traditionally reserved in the past for defending WFA champions. But although the Divas won’t be hosting the 2016 WFA national championship game, they find themselves in an even more desirable position: they are now just one win away from playing in it.

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